Truth commissions

Transitional justice mechanisms usually have limited timeframes and specific mandates. They include truth commissions, trials, traditional mechanisms, reparations, memorialisation, vetting and institutional reform. Institutional reforms are aimed at democratising and building public trust in state institutions. They overlap with many broader reforms in conflict-affected and fragile contexts. Vetting processes assess the integrity of individuals to determine suitability for public employment and to exclude those responsible for serious human rights violations (OHCHR, 2006). They also are often an important part of broader security and justice institution reform (see the GSDRC Safety, Security and Justice Topic Guide for further discussion). Trials, truth commission, traditional mechanisms, reparations and memorialisation are discussed below.

The application of transitional justice is often more effective with a combination of different mechanisms (Olsen et al., 2010a; Ramji-Nogales, 2010). This allows a more innovative and comprehensive approach to evolve over time, which can satisfy various dimensions. For example, some mechanisms may be more appropriate to address issues of procedural fairness; others may resonate more with local populations (Ramji-Nogales, 2010). In some cases, however, the adoption of multiple mechanisms may be problematic, as their roles could become confused or even at odds with one another. In Sierra Leone, for example, some perpetrators did not tell the truth at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as they were concerned they would face prosecution at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was operating at the same time but separate from the TRC (Ramji-Nogales, 2010).

Truth commissions are official, non-judicial commissions of limited duration established to investigate human rights abuses, usually those perpetrated by military, government or other state institutions. They seek to hear testimonies (from victims, witnesses and perpetrators) and officially acknowledge truths. This provides victims with recognition and creates an authoritative, factual record of human rights abuses. In some cases, this includes statements about responsibility and/or detailed lists of perpetrators’ names. In some cases, such information has been provided as evidence to assist with prosecutions. Hearings may be public or closed (González & Varney, 2013; Brankovic & van der Merwe, 2014).

Public hearings, made common by the South African TRC, can be a powerful outreach activity, providing victims with the opportunity to speak out and to achieve a sense of personal vindication, while also involving the public. The South African TRC allowed full access to television cameras to document the proceedings, which made it possible to draw the entire nation into the process as receivers of the testimony (Cole, 2014). The Peruvian TRC partnered with universities across the country, training students to provide support to victims giving testimony at public hearings (González & Varney, 2013).

One of the key outputs of truth commissions is a comprehensive report that documents human rights violations and war atrocities – with the aim of contributing to building a collective memory and educating the public. The final report produced should be considered an important national document. The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, ‘Nunca más’, for example, is widely used for civic education in the country and has been reprinted and reproduced in various formats to reach larger audiences (González & Varney, 2013). Truth commissions can also provide recommendations aimed at addressing the root causes and outcomes of the conflict. Often, this involves countering inequalities in society through institutional reform and developing a reparations policy (González & Varney, 2013; Brankovic & van der Merwe, 2014).

Many truth commissions are tasked with promoting societal and national reconciliation. Providing a forum to disclose past atrocities, hear each other’s grievances and possibly reach common understandings is considered an important step towards reconciliation. In some cases, activities aimed specifically at fostering reconciliation are organised (González & Varney, 2013; Bakiner, 2014). In Timor-Leste, for example, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation partnered with indigenous communities to reintegrate low-level perpetrators who wanted to return to their homes and make amends with those they offended (González & Varney, 2013). Truth commissions can also promote reconciliation through recommendations in their final report. In Peru, the TRC suggested that reform of state institutions could contribute to reconciliation between the government and the citizenry (González & Varney, 2013). The Liberian TRC’s final report documented the need to implement community reconciliation initiatives among the diaspora. This recommendation propelled the development of such programming (Young & Park, 2009).

In order for truth commissions to have an impact on societies, politicians need to be genuinely committed to the process and to provide commissions with the necessary support and resources. Lack of political will, public input and support and careful planning can undermine the effectiveness of truth commissions (Grodsky, 2009; Quinn, 2009). In the case of the Haitian Commission Nationale de Vérité et de Justice (CNVJ), for example, a lack of political will and popular support, along with numerous institutional constraints (including lack of capacity, increasing security concerns, and shortages of time and funding), led to the failure of the Commission to contribute appropriately to the acknowledgement of Haiti’s conflicted past and to advance reconciliation in the country. Although the Commission collected significant amounts of data on the conflict, it failed to make a lasting impact as the final report was not publicised well and there were no follow up activities (Quinn, 2009).

Truth-telling is not limited to official, state-based truth commissions. Truth-telling initiatives can also be unofficial and rooted in civil society. Although unofficial truth commissions may not be able to establish a society-wide dialogue about the past, benefits of community-level truth-telling include the ability to be more context-driven and creative and to connect more with communities (Bickford, 2014).

For further discussion, see the section on impact of transitional justice in this guide.

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